Tacoma Pie has blocky wedges of Detroit-style pizza, have you had it?
Tacoma Pie produces a pizza style that you’ve probably never heard of.
Unless you’re from Michigan. Or Sicily.
Interchangeable terms are used for the pie at Tacoma Pie – Detroit style. Sicilian style. Gramma style.
Tacoma Pie is a pop-up restaurant operating out of The Gourmet Niche, the shared kitchen space in Tacoma that is home to a host of food producers such as Boss Mama’s Kitchen, Lumpia Love (until it returns to its farmers market schedule), The Art of Crunch, Woodland Sunrise, Upper Crust Bakery and so many other local food businesses, I can’t list them all. This week, I’ve taken a dive into food businesses that operate at The Gourmet Niche. Read my story about Lumpia Love serving at The Gourmet Niche here. Read to the end of the story for a list of others to check out, or find the list of The Gourmet Niche food businesses here.
The Gourmet Niche only recently in the last six months started offering drop-in/pick-up services for some of its customers. Previously, it allowed for pick-up by appointments only for a few of the food producers, but owner Bette Anne Curry expanded her concept last year to have a few restaurants – Tacoma Pie and more recently Lumpia Love – open the doors for take-out.
“It’s the first for The Gourmet Niche, but I wanted to pivot with COVID and let both companies have the opportunity to try it out,” said Bette Anne Curry, owner of The Gourmet Niche. She’s also a longtime local caterer. “The Art of Crunch and Woodland Sunrise have pick ups available with an appointment-only status. I’m hoping to evolve into a more open-door policy with our food vendors. Structurally, we will need more of a pop-up environment – next door or on the sidewalk,” said Curry.
For now, Lumpia Love and Tacoma Pie are the only pop-ups serving directly to consumers on a regular drop-in schedule.
SICILIAN PIZZA, NOT THE FIRST IN TACOMA, BUT PROBABLY THE BEST
This isn’t the first time Tacoma has had Sicilian-style pizza in the last decade.
In 2010 when the Harmon Tap Room debuted, the restaurant’s first menu featured Sicilian-style pizza. “The thicker crust carries better for takeout – or delivery, which may be in our future. Our version of the Sicilian style pizza is thicker, but not a ‘deep dish’ crust. We cook it in a pan which produces a nice, thick, crispy crust – unlike the thin, artisan type crust upstairs at the Hub.” Pat Nagle of The Harmon restaurants, told me all the way back in 2010.
It was a short lived menu and that restaurant cycled through an evolution of a lot of other menus before closing permanently in 2019 (Pint and Pie and Odin now occupy that whole building).
Flash forward 10 years and enter: Dean Shivers.
Dean’s not from Detroit. Or Sicily. But he loves pizza. And he loves cocktails. He’s currently shopping for a brick-and-mortar space where he can combine his love for both. Until then, he’ll serve his pies on a limited take-out basis at The Gourmet Niche.
“I knew I wanted to do a Golden Boy pizza. It’s considered Sicilian. That’s what I started doing and trying to recreate,” Shivers told me late last summer when we first spoke about his take-out spot.
“Golden Boy is in North Beach,” he explained, naming the San Francisco neighborhood that I’ve spent some time grazing through. “They basically have this tray of pizzas in the window. You order by visuals. It was mostly to-go orders. They wrap it in butcher paper and send you on the way. When I was running Crown Bar, with all the action after hours at 2 a.m, I figured a slice spot on Sixth Avenue would be perfect.”
He’s always dreamed of doing something like that.
That idea never panned out, so to speak, and he continued working his bar gigs – his cocktail resume also includes stints at Smoke + Cedar and at Cedarbrook Lodge more recently. He was laid off early in the pandemic.
“I had been running bar there for five years prior. Their occupancy went from 90 percent to 10 percent overnight,” said Shivers.
That’s when he decided to start Tacoma Pie.
THE ORIGIN STORY OF TACOMA PIE: A COVID TALE
In the early days of the pandemic when we were all squirreled up in our houses watching Tiger King, Shivers was researching thick-crust pizza.
“I stumbled across Detroit style and that was it,” he said. “When the cheese got between the pan and the dough, that was the best part of it. The burned cheese.”
He added, “Honestly, it was by accident I stumbled on it.” The method and style was born out of research and trial and error, including webinars with pizza dough and bread experts.
The pie is basically a block, or a square, of thick-crust pizza with an edge that’s golden brown and crispy, the result of embedding the crust with cheese.
TACOMA PIE STARTS WITH A BIGA
Shivers begins his pie making with sourdough, a biga he created from ground whole wheat berries. “I use a sourdough starter and it makes, or gives, my dough a little more depth of flavor than a traditional Detroit. The texture, it’s still soft because it’s similar to a focaccia recipe, but with the use of a biga I can do better flavor and a shorter fermentation.”
He needed a way to speed up the process. His solution? “I thought, ‘how do I speed up the fermentation process?’ I went back to my roots in San Francisco and added some sourdough.”
The heavy baking pans are an imperative part of the texture and square size of a Detroit-style pie.
“The blue steel pans, they’re basically these pans auto workers would bring home. In the factories, they would use them to clean grease off parts,” he said of how the pans were first used in Detroit. “Then the wives ended up putting them in the oven and baking bread with them.”
He added, “Nowadays there’s a state-of-the-art pan company: Lloyd Pans in Spokane. Across the board, every high-end pizzeria in the nation orders Lloyd pans. They have the exact same and size that Detroit pizza is built one, a 9-by-13 with square edges. They’re hard anodized, they take less care and they make a really crispy pizza,” he said.
“It’s a little spicier than what some expect,” he said of his pizza sauce, which is tomato based. “I love Thai food and the combination of sweet and spicy. But I’ve never been fond of adding red chile flakes directly on pizza. It’s very forward, it burns your lips and tongue rather than adding to the depth of flavor. Instead, when I saute the garlic, I put the chile in with that. I let the garlic become fragrant and bloom. Then it turns the olive oil reddish. To me, that’s using the oil as a solvent to pull the spice into the sauce. And then onions are very important to Detroit style. There’s a fair amount of onion in it and oregano because I love oregano,” he said.
He added, “For kids and people who don’t like sauce; if you’re sensitive to spice, we can accommodate a request for mild sauce.”
Except for the brick cheese, which he finds too salty, it’s a pretty straightforward iteration of a Detroit PIe. “I don’t think mine is a perfect Detroit because I use a different blend of cheese than a brick cheese,” he added.
“The cheese I use is a proprietary secret. It’s a blend. It took a long time to develop that. I wanted it to be easy melting. I wanted a similar flavor, but not quite as salty.”
I consulted with my longtime pal and former News Tribune colleague, Liz Wishaw, who has the strongest Michigan accent of all my News Tribune friends from Michigan (there are so many of them). “It’s close. Really close,” she said, except for the brick cheese, which is a specific kind of cheese native to Wisconsin.
Other than that, she said, his pizza is the real deal and reminded her of home.
THE MENU AT TACOMA PIE
Because this is a pop-up kitchen, the menu is compact. You’ll find a half dozen pie choices and that’s it. Pizza comes in fat, square blocks that are uncut. And that’s on purpose.
“I serve the pizzas uncut so they can have an easier time getting the pizza hot and the crust crispy again at home,” said Shivers. He encourages diners who pick up his pizza to freshen it up in the oven just before service to get that crunchy edge even more crunchy.
ON A FIRST VISIT, ORDER THE LA CASA
Tacoma Pie comes with a thick, thick crust, but with a soft focaccia-like airy lift and a bouncy texture. The crispy edges created from a pool of “burned cheese” yields a pleasing, exquisite crunch. That springy dough carries a thick smear of the chile-spiced red sauce and is topped with a heavy pile of cheese, a blend that tastes creamy, and is mildly sweet and smoky all in the same bite.
The La Casa, with fennel sausage, black olives and mushroom ($23) is my favorite. I’ve been doing meat-free eating a lot lately. I highly recommend picking up a Zorba, a vegetarian pizza with grilled artichokes, Greek olives and feta ($23).
The wedges seem like a whole pie might feed two, but this pizza is tall, dense and utterly filling. Don’t be surprised if a family of four has trouble polishing off a pie in one sitting. It freezes well, for the record, and crisps up nicely at 425 degrees in a toaster oven.
Serving: Thursdays through Saturdays at The Gourmet Niche, 7104 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
THE GOURMET NICHE
THESE FOOD OPERATORS USE THE GOURMET NICHE AS A HOME BASE
Boss Mama’s Kitchen
Jen Gustin’s popular burger truck is known for producing enormous three-napkin burgers with a side of outstanding customer service. The garlic fries are darn good, too. Gustin took a bit of time off this winter while her truck was being upgraded, but she’s back in action as of the first week of this month. Find out where Gustin is serving next on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Boss-Mamas-Kitchen-235823466752422/
The next two weekends, diners can pick up lumpia, pancit, sio pao, musubi and other Filipino favorites from The Gourment Niche until owner Lynette Boado returns to operating at farmers markets for the season, beginning in April. Boado has operated her mobile lumpia business since 2013, primarily selling at farmers markets. Puyallup Farmers Market regulars will recognize her as the smiling woman offering hand-rolled lumpia that she freshly fries to order at her food stand. She also sells frozen packs ready to take home. Read more about Lumpia Love in this article I published yesterday.
The Art of Crunch
Rhonda Hamlin has been making her famous biscotti and cookie bars since 2011, but the idea for her baking company came long before that. In 2002, the Puyallup native entered her biscotti in a Washington State Fair baking competition. She took the blue ribbon for her white chocolate-dipped cranberry biscotti. Find out more about Rhonda’s biscotti and cookie bars at her website here: http://www.theartofcrunch.com/
Upper Crust Bistro & Bakery
If you lived in the North End a decade ago, you would remember Loren Robinson’s popular bistro. He closed his brick-and-mortar location in 2011 and moved his baking to The Gourmet Niche. He’s built a reputation as a staple at farmers markets. Find his breads, scones, cookies, brownies and more at the Proctor Farmers Market. Check out what he’s got cooking at his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Upper-Crust-Bistro-Bakery-55885395686
Carolina Konkol’s bakery, Woodland Sunrise, exited its brick-and-mortar location in Gig Harbor last year and she is currently producing her baked goods at The Gourmet Niche. Konkol’s cookies are edible works of art. Also find treasures such as handmade caramel-filled gnomes and hot cocoa bombs. Did I mention the alfajores cookie packs? Find out what Konkol’s creating these days on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WOODLANDSUNRISENORTHWEST
WINE PICKUP NEXT DOOR
Don’t forget to pick up wine to pair with dinner at neighborhood wine shop, Wildside Wine.